Allied to the narrative economy is the strength of characterisation, in particular the dwarfs and the QueenlWitch, to a lesser extent Snow White. It is this ability to create convincing characters, through graphic means, that makes the film so interesting for those of us who practise or enjoy animation today. The investment of credibility in these characters is superb, and coupled with this are scenes of lyrical tenderness and exuberance which, though they do not advance the story (I am thinking in particular of Snow White and the animals cleaning the Dwarfs’ cottage, and of the Dwarfs’ evening party) they enhance the comedy which is closely linked to characterisation and the overall richness of effect. Finally, the expressionistic scenes of power and terror (Snow White’s flight and the Queen’s transformation) with their fluidity and filmic assurance of design, still have the ability to shock our latter-day senses that have been dulled by horror and violence.
Narrative economy, visual richness and humour are therefore the qualities which give the film its strength.
The story is also fresh in execution, with those sequences cancelled or abandoned which did not carry on the narrative drive. Yet the apparent simplicity cloaks immense complexity and control. By December 1937, 650 artists were at work, sometimes seven days a week, in a concerted determination to finish the film. Nothing, even at this late stage, was left to chance. Every brush stroke, colour gradation, angle, composition, special effect, is there by design under Disney’s overall guidance. The artists who worked on it were, like Disney himself, steeped in film. Disney encouraged them to see films and he himself had films shown both at the studio and at his home. Marc Davis, a key animator and one of the studio’s “nine old men” recalls (in Grimmer’s Journal, Winter 1975):
We saw every ballet, we saw every film. If a film was good we would go and see it five times. Walt rented a studio up in North Hollywood and we would see a selection of films – anything from Chaplin to unusual subjects. Anything that might produce growth, that might be stimulating – the cutting of the scenes, the staging, how a group of scenes was put together, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu were things that we saw. I remember Metropolis, I would never want to see this film again because it had a very strong impact on me. I have built it up in my mind and I want to leave it that way. This was Walt’s attitude, always the search for something different.
There are echoes of a number of films in Snow White, which in no way detract from its originality but which place its careful development within its own context. First there are the Hollywood films that precede it: The Frederick March version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932~ is echoed in the Queen s transformation scene in her laboratory. The Operetta convention seized on by Hollywood in the late 20s and early 30s – The Vagabond King (1930) and The Merry Widow (1934) come to mind – is strongly present in the Snow White-Prince sequence at the Wishing Well. It is also the basis for many of the recitative and song sequences, though song in the film, unlike operetta, always enhances action and/or character. In a story conference of October 1935 Disney advises: “Have our dialogue not rhymed or definite beat rhythm, but have meter and at the right time tie in with the music, so the whole thing has musical pattern – dialogue and music work together and use dialogue to lead into songs naturally… out in the woods she picks up words from the birds and it suggests song to her… avoid just breaking into song, lead into songs instead”.
Both Snow White’s flight through the forest and the Queen’s transformation scene are powerfully expressionistic. For the nightmare flight the artists recalled the use of sound to support montage in Private Worlds (1935) an unusually adult story of a mental hospital. Gothic elements echo Lang’s Metropolis (1926), Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Sunrise (1927). Jonathan Rosenbaum (in the January/February 1975 issue of Film Comment) cites Leni Reifenstahl’s The Blue Light (1932) as an influence, saying that it:
is full of striking correspondence to the cartoon features. It begins with the framing device of a luxurious leather-bound volume being opened to lead us into the story proper; even in Reifenstahl’s gleaming blacks and whites, the book’s cover appears to shine with the regal splendour of inlaid gold. The intense pantheism, the poetic innocence and purity of the heroine, the telepathy and empathy shown to animals.., the sheer terror of her flight.., the misty idealism.., all are recognisable features of the Disney Kingdom.